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Three Things to Know: Rule knowledge, plus Devin Booker, gets Suns dramatic win

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Devin Booker is back, but coach Jay Triano’s rulebook knowledge gets Suns dramatic win. There is no goaltending on an inbounds pass. Offensive or defensive. How can there be, it’s not a shot — you can’t score on it (even if it goes through the basket). So if the ball is over the cylinder of the basket on an inbounds pass, you can grab it.

Did you know that? Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff clearly didn’t (watch his reaction to the play below). However, Suns coach Jay Triano did, so with 0.6 seconds left he drew up a play that called for a lob and veteran Tyson Chandler finished the alley-oop as the ball was over the rim, giving the Suns a 99-97 win over Memphis.

That was a great pass by Dragan Bender to make that alley-oop possible. Memphis put Marc Gasol on Bender at the inbounds, which left the not-as-strong Brandan Wright to try to defend Chandler around the basket, and while Wright is more athletic than Gasol he did not have the strength to move Chandler out of the one position he needed to be in to finish the play and the game.

That play is not why the Grizzlies lost. Memphis missed its last 11 shots from the field and went almost six minutes without a bucket in the fourth quarter, that is what cost them the game.

That and Devin Booker. The Suns’ guard was back after missing nine games due to a left adductor strain and he didn’t miss a beat, scoring 20 points in the first half and 32 for the game (he had fouled out before that final play, or maybe it is run for him, you can do a catch-and-shoot in .6 seconds by the NBA rulebook). The Suns are a lot more fun to watch with Booker on the court.

2) Worst in the West beats best in the East? Dallas upsets Toronto. For a day, the Toronto Raptors were on top of the East. Toronto had won six straight and 12-of-13, while the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers both lost on Christmas Day. That left Toronto as the team on top of the East with a .742 winning percentage.

Then they traveled to 9-25 Dallas.

Maybe the Raptors were looking ahead to a showdown with the Thunder Wednesday night, but they were flat and ran into a Mavericks team that isn’t winning a lot but has been feisty and in games lately. The Mavs don’t get blown out. Dallas hung around this one despite Kyle Lowry looking like he would just take over for a stretch (but he missed crucial shots down the stretch). When DeMar DeRozan tried to take over late, he just looked flat (like Toronto did all night).

Dallas got 20 points out of J.J. Barea off the bench, and Dirk Nowitzki had 18 because that’s what he does, to lead the Mavericks. Dallas is going to end up with a high draft pick, but they are not tanking and just throwing in the towel on the season, they are playing gritty basketball.

3) Ejection night: Nikola Jokic gets tossed, as do Kris Dunn and Khris Middleton. Welcome to the night of the “why did he do that?” ejections.

First up is Denver’s Nikola Jokic. He was running down the court when Utah’s Jonas Jerebko bumped him. That happens just about every play. However, Jokic decides to respond with an NFL-style swim move to get around Jerebko, and in the process elbows the Jazz big man in the face.

For a couple of seasons now NBA officials have cracked down on any blows to the head. Intentional or not, they are not allowed and lead to an instant ejection. Jokic earned this one.

However, that was not the most idiotic move leading to an ejection of the night.

There were 22 seconds left in the game and the Bulls were up by 9 and about to upset the Bucks. Milwaukee would take a last shot, Chicago would then dribble it out. But as the Bucks came down Khris Middleton elbows Kris Dunn a little trying to seal him and get position, Dunn then grabbed Middleton’s jersey, so Middleton threw another elbow at Dunn, then Dunn tackled him. Did we mention there were now 16.9 seconds left in a decided game?

Maybe they were arguing over the proper way to spell their first name, in which case Chris Paul should have gotten into it and ejected too, even though he wasn’t even playing in this game or on either of these teams. There will be fines for this, which is going to sting when it’s time to write the check because this was the definition of unnecessary.

LeBron James congratulates himself, ‘Young King,’ on reaching 30,000 points later tonight

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The Cavaliers have lost nine of 12. Prominent Cleveland players are raising concerns about the roster. Rumors are swirling about coach Tyronn Lue getting fired. The locker room is in disarray. Some Cavs are even pointing the finger at LeBron James himself.

And this is what LeBron posts to Instagram hours before tonight’s Cavaliers-Spurs game:

Wanna be one of the first to Congratulate you on this accomplishment/achievement tonight that you’ll reach! Only a handful has reach/seen it too and while I know it’s never been a goal of yours from the beginning try(please try) to take a moment for yourself on how you’ve done it! The House you’re about to be apart of has only 6 seats in it(as of now) but 1 more will be added and you should be very proud and honored to be invited inside. There’s so many people to thank who has help this even become possible(so thank them all) and when u finally get your moment(alone) to yourself smile, look up to the higher skies and say THANK YOU! So with that said, Congrats again Young King 🤴🏾! 1 Love! #striveforgreatness🚀 #thekidfromakron👑

A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on

LeBron is just seven points from 30,000. The only players to score so much in their careers: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Dirk Nowitzki.

It’ll be a nice milestone for LeBron, but he darn well better score those seven points tonight. Not getting there tonight would be the simplest way to make this even more insufferable.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr., Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo and Larry Nance Jr. to compete in dunk contest

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. already looked like he was competing in the dunk contest.

Apparently, he’ll put those skills to use in the real thing.

And so will Aaron Gordon (Magic), Victor Oladipo (Pacers) and Larry Nance Jr. (Lakers).

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Oliver Maroney of Uproxx:

The number of contestants in the dunk contest has varied, but it’s been four the last few years. So, this might be the entire field – and it’d be a strong one.

Gordon narrowly lost to Zach LaVine in an epic dunk contest a couple years ago. Oladipo brings star power, as he’ll probably play in the actual All-Star game. Nance has the pedigree, and I bet he involves his dad – who won the NBA’s first dunk contest in 1984 – in a dunk. Smith is the young up-and-comer with the first platform to prove himself nationally.

I can’t wait.

Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awful to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already be Jokic’s time already.

Clippers go to third-string coach after Doc Rivers and Mike Woodson ejected (video)

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Remember when Doc Rivers vowed last year to stop getting technical fouls? He actually followed through for the rest of the season.

But the pledge apparently expired with the season.

Rivers got a technical foul and ejection late in the Clippers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night. Lead assistant Mike Woodson followed suit before play even resumed.

That meant assistant coach Sam Cassell – who already got his own technical foul earlier in the game! – took over for the final 7.4 seconds.